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Rediff.com  » Business » Bidding for brands: India and China acquire a taste for luxury

Bidding for brands: India and China acquire a taste for luxury

January 11, 2008 15:29 IST

Hotel managers, particularly those in the luxury business, are generally polite folk. But last month, when India's Taj Hotels chain made what it said was a friendly approach to Orient Express Hotels, Trains & Cruises, the luxury hospitality group, the ensuing dialogue quickly degenerated into an uncharacteristically public spat.

Paul White, chief executive of Orient Express, wrote a blunt letter stating that any association with Taj, the luxury hotel operator owned by the Tata Group, one of India's most venerable industrial houses, would damage the New York-listed company's premium brand.

The comments provoked an outburst from government and business leaders in India, culminating in the normally reserved Tata Group taking the unprecedented step of publicly demanding an apology. "Indian companies...will take their rightful place in the international arena," R K Krishna Kumar, vice-chairman of the Tata-owned Indian Hotels, wrote in a letter that read like a manifesto on the new world economic order.

"Enterprises and individuals must recognise and adapt to these fundamental economic changes. We believe that those with a fossilised frame of mind risk being marginalised."

Although an extreme example, the row between Taj and Orient Hotels points to a growing trend. As the economies of emerging markets boom and their biggest conglomerates grow into multinationals, more and more of the new corporate giants in countries ranging from India to China, Russia and Brazil are looking to wring greater profits out of their respective industries.

The quickest way to do that is to buy a global brand, particularly a premium or luxury one. In the latest and probably most ambitious such move yet, the Tata group has taken the lead in bidding for Ford's elite Jaguar and Land Rover marques.

But there are also dissenting voices, who argue that low-cost emerging market producers such as Tata Motors, which on Thursday unveiled the world's cheapest passenger car - the Tata "Nano" - do not have the expertise to manage luxury brands.

Alongside this is the debate between those who believe there is a stigma attached to being associated with companies from what was once known as the "Third World", and others who see proponents of such views as ignorant of the direction in which global trade is moving in the 21st century. "India and China might have been on the wrong side of history for the past 200 years but for the next 200 years they will be on the right side of it," says Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of advertising agency WPP.

The move towards acquiring brands is the culmination of an overseas acquisition spree over the past few years by emerging market companies, particularly cash-rich groups in India and China. As their economies have grown, so too has their need for resources, technology and access to funds.

The biggest acquisitions so far have been companies in oil and natural resources, such as Tata Steel's acquisition of Anglo-Dutch rival Corus, the owner of the former British Steel, and similar takeovers by other Indian and Chinese companies.

But increasingly, Indian and Chinese manufacturers are also no longer content to be the invisible toilers at the bottom of the global economic pyramid. They want to take the lead - and a greater share of the profits - by acquiring brands. Mr Kumar, who is also a director of Tata Sons, the group's parent company, describes this as the natural "trajectory" for any company.

"If you see the progression of most companies in the world - Japanese or South Korean or American or British - they will all have started in some form of commodity industry and over a period of development and evolution have evolved into [investing in] luxury brands," Mr Kumar says.

Among the pioneers in China of this move up the value chain is Lenovo, the computer vendor, which bought IBM's PC unit for $1.75bn (pound 900m, euro 1.2m) in 2005, making it the country's first company to take on the tricky task of managing a global premium brand. IBM's all-black ThinkPad laptops had long commanded high prices from business buyers, who saw them as rugged corporate workhorses produced by one of the most prestigious names in computing.

Sceptics thought ThinkPad's brand value would quickly decline under the stewardship of a company from China, a country that has generated few global brands of its own and which remains less than a by-word for quality. So far, however, Lenovo has confounded its critics. Under the terms of the 2005 deal, the Chinese company had the right to retain the IBM brand on its Thinkpads and desktop Thinkcentres for up to five years. But instead, it decided to stop using the IBM name after just three.

China's other major foray in the foreign premium and luxury goods - the acquisition of parts of the UK's MG Rover group two years ago by Nanjing Auto and Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation - has had a more mixed record. Although Nanjing Auto re-started modest production of the MG TF sports car at Longbridge in England last year, the main focus of both companies has been on the mid-market Rover models that they also acquired. Indeed, both companies have launched saloon cars in China based on the old Rover 75 model.

In a broad range of industries, Chinese manufacturers are urgently feeling the need to move up the value chain because of rising wages and intense competition. Trying to establish some sort of brand name is an important part of the expansion plans of many textiles companies, for example. But they will first have to overcome China's reputation for low-cost manufacturing and fake goods, which could immediately devalue a luxury brand were the Chinese to take control of it.

In India, the Tata group, which apart from hotels, automotives and steel has interests ranging across information technology services, telecommunications and beverages, has been the undisputed pioneer of the Indian global acquisition of brands.

The move abroad was kicked off by Tata Tea, the group's beverage arm. Once an anonymous grower of tea for sale on world markets to the highest bidder, Tata Tea realised it needed to acquire a brand name if it was to escape the boom-and-bust commodity cycles that periodically crush producers' margins. It bought Britain's Tetley Group in 2000, instantly placing it on the map of the world's consumer brands. It has continued to evolve since, becoming the world's second-largest global branded tea company.

The group's other most progressive arm on expanding into the overseas luxury market has been Taj Hotels, which bought the Ritz-Carlton in Boston in 2005 and is aiming eventually to have half its properties overseas, compared with a quarter now.

David Gibbons, general manager of what is now called Taj Boston recalls: "People were unsure of who we were. Travel professionals know the Taj brand but the consumer doesn't necessarily if they haven't travelled abroad." Mr Gibbons admits that the shock remained for months after the changeover and he had to reassure people. "I said: 'We manage maharajas' palaces in India. Trust us and watch us.'"

The group also recently bought Campton Place in Union Square in San Francisco and assumed management of the landmark The Pierre on 5th Avenue in New York from the Four Seasons.

Tata's push into overseas luxury brands is beginning to be emulated by other Indian groups. DLF, India's largest property developer, was little known overseas until late last year, when it bought Aman Resorts, an ultra-luxury hotel chain with properties in some of the world's most exotic and remote locations.

Rajeev Talwar, executive director at DLF, says such high-profile international acquisitions boost a company's corporate profile overseas, making it easier to raise financing and find partners for future acquisitions. "For a company, that first major foreign acquisition is what an MBA is like for a good student - it takes you to a higher plane," Mr Talwar says.

But most analysts agree the real test of how emerging markets companies will fare when buying premium or high-end brands is Tata Motors' proposed acquisition of Jaguar and Land Rover. So far, the proposed takeover - the first attempted acquisition of a top-end luxury consumer product by an Indian or Chinese company - has left many analysts puzzled.

Moody's and Standard & Poor's, the credit rating agencies, have both warned that Tata risks stretching its management and finances too thinly by taking on the marques, especially lossmaking Jaguar. Others ask what Tata can do for Jaguar that Ford, one of the world's oldest and most experienced carmakers, could not.

"You may be one of the world's best managers but you are still managing something different that you haven't had any experience with before," says Alok Aggarwal chairman of Evalueserve, a research firm.

Critics say Tata could learn from some of the mistakes they say Ford made with Jaguar. This includes not doing enough to ensure that, in terms of its style and design, Jaguar kept up with its competitors while retaining its heritage as an elite brand - although Ford seems to now be addressing this with its newest models.

"Although Jaguar is historically a very strong brand, I think what they [Ford] tried to do was keep the old look of Jaguar instead of modernising it and making it more relevant," says Ray Ally, executive director at Landor Associates, the global brand consultancy, in Beijing.

Mr Ally says it is crucial for Tata to ensure that it keeps the Jaguar brand completely ring-fenced from the rest of the group, like Toyota did when it first launched Lexus, its luxury car. For example, there should be no Tata badge on the car or anything associated with the Indian group, to avoid diluting the Jaguar brand in the eyes of consumers, he said.
Indeed, Ratan Tata, Tata group chairman (left), has already indicated that this is what he plans to do.

"A lot of people have been making an issue of whether a car manufacturer that's in the low end can also integrate with an upper end luxury car enterprise... [but] that assumes that one is going to integrate the enterprise," Mr Tata told the FT this week.

"If you take Unilever, they may make a soap in Africa for the masses and they may make a high-class cosmetic product in the UK and that high-end cosmetic product has its own brand equity... Unilever is able to handle both ends of the spectrum."

For Tata, the full rewards of buying the brand will only be realised when and if it manages to turn Jaguar around financially, an outcome that would by association lift the image of the Indian group as a whole and improve its global branding power.

In the meantime, Tata and other emerging companies will still have to battle the stigma attached to companies from developing countries, particularly when acquiring luxury brand names such as Jaguar and Land Rover. The group already faced this from Jaguar dealers in the US, whose representative body recently said US buyers might not be ready for "ownership out of India for a luxury car brand such as Jaguar".

Landor's Mr Ally says part of the problem for Tata is that "Brand India" remains relatively weak overseas, coloured by people's perceptions of the country as strong on call centres and software engineers but not on creating and managing sexy consumer products.

Indians bridle at such perceptions, pointing to the large number of Indian managers at the top of global corporations, such as Citigroup and Pepsi. Suhel Seth, managing partner at brand consultancy Counselage, says notions of India as a poor country entirely unused to premium goods and luxury lifestyles ignore the country's lavish past during the pre-independence era of the maharajas. Some of this culture carries on today.

"Most Indians who are economically well off lead a life that is far more luxurious than their counterparts would have in the west," says Mr Seth.

Joe Leahy, Amy Yee, Mure Dickie and Geoff Dyer